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The Assassin Tree

Other Articles:

Anna Picard, Spare me yet another femme fatale (The Independent, September 3)

Paul Driver, Opera: Dark side of the moon (The Times, September 3)

Geoff Brown, So much promise, but this tree's fruits fail to nourish (The Times, August 28)

Rupert Christiansen, All gong and no dinner (The Telegraph, August 29)
In my Opera Preview for the fall, I mentioned a new Scottish chamber opera by Stuart MacRae, called The Assassin Tree, recently given its Covent Garden premiere. At earlier performances in Edinburgh, Raymond Monnelle gave a very positive review (The Assassin Tree, Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, August 29) in The Independent:
At last, a thoroughly successful new Scottish opera. Not that Stuart MacRae's The Assassin Tree is an opera in the normal sense: it's more a piece of music theatre, recalling Britten's church parables and some of the works of Maxwell Davies. Based on the story of the king of the wood in Frazer's The Golden Bough, it epitomises the chemistry of sexual relations in portraying the goddess Diana as a femme fatale, leading men to their deaths as each king-priest is murdered by his successor.

A major part of the success is due to the author of the text, Simon Armitage. The art of the opera librettist is not much in demand nowadays, and as a result many operas are spoilt by clumsy texts, the work of novelists and playwrights. Armitage constructs a neat pattern of action, simple and ingenious, with only four characters (the whole work lasts just over an hour). Relinquishing his usual streetwise style, he elevates the language sufficiently to suggest mythic nobility, without losing familiarity and fluency. There is hardly any true dialogue; the characters sing mainly to themselves.
Tom Service was not as kind in his review (The Assassin Tree, August 28) in The Guardian:
Scored for 15-piece ensemble - the Britten Sinfonia, conducted by Garry Walker - the music has all the intensity and focus of MacRae's recent work, with its ritualistic power and elemental energy, especially in the dissonant fanfare of the opening. The problem is that, in creating the mythical realm of Diana's grove, the human side of the story is lost. MacRae's uncompromising vocal lines are expertly negotiated by the singers, but Armitage's poetic, allusive text is scarcely audible, and the delicate symbolism of the libretto is undermined by its musical treatment. The Assassin Tree is a bold piece of music theatre, but it fails to alchemise the individual elements of its text, music, and staging into a convincing dramatic experience.
See the response by Stuart MacRae (Yes, but ..., September 13) in The Guardian. For more of the composer's point of view on his first opera, see the preview he did with Sarah Jones (Baby-faced assassin, August 20) for The Scotsman. Go to this image gallery for some photographs of the production.

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